Capabilities and Libertarianism Part IV: Libertarianism for Capabilitarians

This is the fourth and final post in a series on why libertarians and adherents of the capabilities approach should engage with one another. In the first post I laid out the basics of the capabilities approach. In second post I criticized common or garden variety libertarianism through a capabilitarian lens. But in the third post I argued that neoclassical liberals already resemble capabilitarians, though there may still be points of discord. In this post, I turn the tables and suggest areas where capabilitarians can learn from libertarianism. It may seem like the neoclassical liberals I have spoken so highly of are hardly libertarian at all. But all of the following talking points are deeply libertarian, and they would all be endorsed by any neoclassical liberal you may encounter in an Ivory Tower corridor.


Everyone groans when a libertarian points out that every little government policy from taxation to lemonade stand regulation is enforced by folks with guns. And they should groan: when people pay their taxes, they’re participating in a social practice that is just expected of them, as close to tipping restaurant servers as to suffering armed robbery; government guns are the furthest things from their minds. And yet it is useful to remember that government programs are ultimately backed up by violent force. We should pause before employing government force to radically alter the shape of people’s lives. This defeasible caution strikes me as consistent with capabilitarian sensitivities. I was thus flabbergasted when I read (Frontiers of Justice) that Martha Nussbaum reckons compulsory youth national service is an excellent policy.

It seems to me that the United States (and other nations) can reap many benefits from [a national youth service program], in addition to the obvious one of getting a lot of this work done by energetic young people at relatively low cost. Young people, both men and women, would learn what this work is like, how important it is, and how difficult; this experience could be expected to shape their attitudes in political debates and in family life. They would also see different parts of the country, different social classes, and one another — something that the abolition of the military draft has made very rare in the experience of most Americans. If national service included a military option, this would also restore civilian control over the military. It is a sad comment on the legacy of the social contract tradition that people are ready enough to trumpet the importance of moral and religious values, but unwilling to support such a policy, which would seem to be the basic minimum that such values would advocate. Instead, young people and their parents seem preoccupied with “getting ahead,” and the idea that two or three years of life would actually be given to others is regarded as absurd — despite the fact that this work is being done every day, usually by people who are far less able than the middle-class young to afford the drain on time and energy that it imposes.

Nussbaum appears to be completely insensitive in this case to the use of coercion, and not just a little nudge, but literally commandeering the bodies and minds of 18-year-olds, who have by this age thoroughly developed a sense of agency and yearn to lead their own lives by their own values. Such a policy violates the principle that each individual should be treated as an end in theirself. Nussbaum’s sanguinity about a military option (and her apparent nostalgia for the draft) is troubling. It surely matters that historically the US military has played a brutally anti-capabilitarian role in the lives of millions around the world. Contrast this nostalgia with Milton Friedman’s famous advocacy for the draft’s abolition on account of its striking similarity to slavery. One can agree with Nussbaum’s exhortation to learn about and respect care work and care workers, but this calls for the hard work of consciousness-raising and carefully structured laws (there is a role for the state) to identify, protect, and justly compensate care workers, not forced servitude.

This is just one example of one policy proposal from a capabilitarian, but hopefully the general case is clear. Because most capabilitarians are high liberals there is an assumption that extensive government action is required to implement the lofty capabilitarian vision. But government action is rooted in coercion by threat of violence. This fact doesn’t remove government action from the palette of options. But it does suggest careful discretion is needed to ensure the benefits of a given policy are proportional to the moral costs of coercion.

Public Choice

The capabilitarian easily tempted to public policy solutions can learn from the insights of public choice theory. I will outsource to Jane Shaw to describe the basic principles:

Public choice takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people’s actions in the marketplace and applies them to people’s actions in collective decision making. Economists who study behavior in the private marketplace assume that people are motivated mainly by self-interest. Although most people base some of their actions on their concern for others, the dominant motive in people’s actions in the marketplace—whether they are employers, employees, or consumers—is a concern for themselves. Public choice economists make the same assumption—that although people acting in the political marketplace have some concern for others, their main motive, whether they are voters, politicians, lobbyists, or bureaucrats, is self-interest. In Buchanan’s words the theory “replaces… romantic and illusory… notions about the workings of governments [with]… notions that embody more skepticism.”

High liberals are quick to spot (real or imagined) market failures, but of course government failures exist as well. One of the key lessons of public choice is thus that we shouldn’t place unwarranted faith in the benevolence of public sphere actors. Public choice casts doubt over our ability to correct market failures without simply replacing them with government failures. Public choice also offers an understanding of “regulatory capture,” whereby government regulations are often not crafted for the public, but instead for those entrenched and well-connected political insiders, in both government and the private sphere.

High liberals often make it sound as if government is corrupted by the private sphere, but of course influence goes both directions, and individuals within the government (not only elected officials but political appointees and institutional bureaucrats) have immense power. It is a misunderstanding that libertarians see villainy only in government figures. We see corruption arising from an elite social class comprising both public and private actors, and facilitated by the presence of too much opportunity for collusion between the two spheres.

Of course, governments in the real world sometimes do correct market failures, and they are able to coordinate successfully on collective action problems, albeit more slowly and less cleanly than anyone would wish. The cynicism of public choice can be overstated. But the insights remain if we suppose not vicious self-interest, but instead the banal self-interest captured well by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Skepticism of Democracy

This is really a particular instance of public choice theory, but it deserves its own heading. High liberals, and likely capabilitarians among them, put a lot of stock into democratic decision making. But this too requires a reality check. Seen as a rational agent, the typical voter has little incentive to become informed. After all, the only way to have a discernible impact in a democratic election is to cast a tie-breaking vote; otherwise, the voter can stay home to witness the same outcome. But in any election involving even a modest number of voters, the chance of the election coming down to a single vote is vanishing. With a large electorate, the error in the ballot counting process is greater than the single vote even the most earnest voter can cast. Thus there is little incentive to become informed enough to vote well.

It gets worse. Because we humans naturally derive some psychological pleasure from our tribal affiliations and the identities we construct for ourselves, we have reason to vote in a way that makes us feel good. So the voter has reason to support their team whether or not it’s right on the issues salient to a given election. The average voter is not only rationally ignorant but rationally irrational. The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan (not a neoclassical liberal) points out that voters have systematic biases, where their opinions diverge from those of experts (as well as verifiable fact often enough). One bias Caplan identifies is an anti-market bias.

Controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, and race only mildly reduces the size of the lay-expert belief gap. And, since the typical economist is actually a moderate Democrat, controlling for party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap get a little bigger. Economists think that markets work well not because of their extreme right-wing ideology, but despite their mild left-wing ideology.

Perhaps of interest to capabilitarians, Caplan also identifies a bias against foreigners, in terms of both immigration and trade. Because they are systematic, these biases don’t fortuitously cancel out to leave a wise and virtuous deliberative core. The neoclassical liberal Jason Brennan has discussed the ethical implications of this at length. The bottom line is that there is no obligation for the individual to vote, but if the individual does choose to vote, they should exercise epistemic virtue and rigor in doing so. In capabilitarian lingo: while we must protect the capability of the individual to make their political voice heard, we should hesitate to encourage the typical individual to convert this capability into a functioning. The capabilitarian should focus on education, the cultivation of epistemic virtue among citizens, and alternative expressions of civic virtue (say, volunteering in care work), rather than fetishize democratic participation as such.

The mere stamp of approval of a majority by itself confers no greater legitimacy than the free and autonomous activities that occur in a marketplace or other voluntary arena. The desirability of involving the democratic community in any particular issue should be weighed against the degree of coercion involved, the public choice dynamics at play, and the awareness that voters may not vote in a just manner. It is simply wiser to leave a great many things to the discretion of the individual where the input of the electorate isn’t absolutely essential.

Spontaneous Order

The considerations above are rather pessimistic. We don’t want to trust human nature on many political decisions because the results will predictably tend to be sub-optimal, even on capabilitarian grounds. Keeping the caveat from Part II firmly in mind, we can be guardedly more optimistic about humans taking care of themselves in a lightly but effectively regulated marketplace. Quoting again Brennan and Tomasi (who channel Leonard Read),

A commercial market is a paradigm of a spontaneous order. The production of the most ordinary commercial good—a lowly pencil—requires the mobilization of a staggeringly complex system of actors: foresters, miners, sailors, metallurgists, chemists, gluers, accountants and more.  Literally “no person on the face of this earth” knows how to make a pencil from scratch, yet pencils are produced. The market mobilizes the army of people who make the pencil, but not one plays the role of general.  The cooperative system that produces pencils is a product of human action but not of human design.  Most people involved in making pencils have no idea they are doing so.

Nobody knows how to make a pencil — not to mention a microprocessor chip — but they still get made. The spontaneous order is in many cases far more effective at producing the things we need and want — and the things required for a flourishing civilization — than rationally directed or democratically dictated methods. And spontaneous orders work their magic in a way that, at least to first-order (recalling the critical importance of the social context) respects the agency of the individual as an actor pursuing their own ends. More profoundly, spontaneous orders involve an exploration of the adjacent possible, culturally, economically, and technologically, that offers the promise of expanding the capabilities set in radical and unforeseeable ways. It has already done so. Deirdre McCloskey has argued powerfully that the Great Enrichment (the explosion of wealth from ~1800 to the present) resulted from the Enlightenment’s bestowal of dignity to the commoner to pursue their own ends by their own means, economically and otherwise, thus setting in motion the spontaneous order of innovation.

Virtue, the Social Context, and Conclusion

It may seem like the door opened by embracing the capabilities approach is just closed again by the hard-headed libertarian arguments presented above. But this is just the assumption that if we really want or need something, then we turn to government to make it happen. Libertarianism does cast a skeptical shadow over this assumption. But these libertarian arguments do not definitively obviate the role of government. They merely limit its role, in scope but more importantly in shape. Consider again the argument for a universal basic income. Neoclassical liberals advance this specific social support policy because it maximizes the discretion of the individual and minimizes the opportunities for the kinds of political tinkering that both disrespect the individual (e.g., humiliating means testing) and reduce its effectiveness (by e.g., stipulating that recipients obtain specific goods and services through approved providers, which is to say, political insiders). Of course, any system devised and managed by fallen humanity must eventually decay, but knowing how this happens can improve our designs. The capabilitarian armed with libertarian realism will above all see that government action does not provide a silver bullet.


In my view the most important result of the fusion of capabilitarianism and libertarianism is an awareness of the importance of the social context. Because there is no such thing as a policy silver bullet, we must wade into the murk and mire of the social context, where we talk with one another, and raise consciousness about failures of justice. Coercive policies aimed at eliminating racism, sexism, ableism, etc, will be corrupted by actors (public and private) who ingeniously bend or work around the regulations, (cynically or unconscious). I aim at libertarians as well: greater dignity for and higher expectations of virtue in public figures may result in less evil governments. Public institutions are emergent too. Virtue (all of them), engendered and sustained within the conversational milieu of the social context, is required for any spontaneous order to work for the flourishing of all. Formal constitutional guarantees of capabilities are probably necessary in some cases, likely counter-productive in other cases, but in no case sufficient to bring about capabilitarian flourishing.

With this and the previous three essays, I have introduced and advocated the capabilities approach, and I have argued that some kinds of libertarianism may be able to stand up to its rigorous demands. But the learning goes both ways, as libertarians have much wisdom to impart in terms of the feasibility and expectations of the public sector. Above all, I think, the collision of these two theories highlights the importance of the social context, and our conversations with one another in the world of values and ideas. But I am sensitive to my ignorance relative to my intended audience. The ambitious project I envision is a research program of libertarians and capabilitarians (and virtue ethicists?) working together to construct a new paradigm in political theory. I have merely sketched the contours of the conversation I hope might follow.

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